Royal Economist Warns Workers May One Day Gain Rights, Pay, Human Dignity
Not on Our watch
As hordes of ungrateful peasants clamour to improve their lowly lot in lyfe, the Royal Economist hath warned that if their behaviour is not kept in check they may one day gain rights, pay, or even a modicum of human dignity.
“We are truly at a crossroads,” spake Royal Economist Meethaal Pickelgräber. “If every peasant is guaranteed a paycheque, this could slightly hinder liegelords’ ability to buy luxurious silken drapes from the East and host lavish banquets with a surfeit of fresh spiced fowl and wild game.
“We’ll still be able to have these things, of course, just not quite as ostentatiously.”
Threats to profit margins and opulent feasts be not the only things worrying nobles. If peasants are to gain some form of incumme, there be naught to stop them from demanding to be treated like actual human beings as well.
“‘Tis a slippery slope,” spake Pickelgräber. “One day thou gives them a five minute break to set the broken leg they suffered when thy horse trampled them during a hare chase, the next day they’re insisting they not be whipt arbitrarily and for sport.”
Peasants, for their part, hath been largely silent on the matter.
“Me knows not what a ‘rights’ is,” spake Sprow Moleshillock, a peasant. “Be it a type o’ barleycorn?”
Some lords and ladies hath sought to cross class lines on the matter, conceding that peasants doth deserve a trifling taste of rights, so long as they don’t challenge the existing social structure or give any indications of improving their pathetic lot in lyfe.
“I’m all for peasants having the right to say things, so long as those things are said in a servile, grovelling manner and they don’t inconvenience me in any way whatsoever,” spake Lord Poundsnift. “But giving them money ist where I draw the line.”
Addendum: Danced to Death
From July to September 1518 in Strasbourg, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, a strange disease possessed the town. It caused hundreds of people to dance nonstop until — if Reddit is to be trusted— dozens of them fell dead.
Various sicknesses occurred throughout the Middle Ages which caused people to dance nonstop, with the incident in 1518 in Strasbourg being the most famous among them. These dancing diseases went by various names: the Dancing Plague, Dancing Mania, St. Vitus’ Dance, St. John’s Dance, tarantium. What caused this incessant medieval boogying? Did anyone actually die, as many of the articles written about it claim? And how might one catch this groovy disease in our modern day and age?
Swiss physician/alchemist Paracelsus, writing about the Strasbourg incident not long after the fact in 1531, thinks it started as an attempt by a bunch of women to piss off their husbands.
This is how it originated. Lady Troffea was the first one known for this disease. She adopted strange moods and manners; and when she came into a state of false pride and turned stubborn against her husband when he told her to do something that she did not care for, she then affected a manner as if she were ill and concocted a disease that would suit her purposes in this regard. So she adopted the manner of dancing and pretended that she could not stop dancing. For her husband disliked nothing more than dancing. In order to make sure that her actions had their full effect and had the likeness of a disease, she hopped and jumped high, sang and lulled, and did whatever it was that her husband hated worst of all. After the completion of her dance, she collapsed in order to offend her husband.
False pride will do that to you. Lady Troffea goes on to claim to her husband that this was a disease she suffered from. Her game catches on with the other women in town, who also hate their husbands.
In consequence of this, other women did the same sort of thing, carrying on in this manner, and the one showing the other how to do it.
Eventually, so many women are taking part in the ruse that hundreds of people in town start to believe it’s a real thing, and in a state of hysteria they convince themselves that they have the disease, too. Initial attempts by the city council to quell the dancing by setting up dance halls to let people “just dance it out” backfire, and cause it to spread even faster.
By August, the dancing has gotten so out of hand, according to H.C. Midelfort, that the city council forbids dancing altogether until the end of September, charging a 30 shilling fine to anyone caught dancing. (They make exceptions for weddings and religious occasions, although only stringed instruments are allowed; tambourines and drums are explicitly prohibited. Way too funky.)
They also go so far as to temporarily banish all “loose persons” (aka prostitutes, drunkards, etc.) from the city, apparently in some sort of attempt to cut down on sin.
John Waller, writing in The Lancet, traces the earliest incident of dancing sickness to Kölbigk, Germany in 1021. There, eighteen people gathered outside a church dancing, preventing the local priest from conducting mass in peace. As punishment the priest successfully cursed them to dance for a year, after which at least some of them died, or so the story goes.
In the Strasbourg mania, Waller claims that as many as 15 people — men, women, and children — died per day from dancing. Paracelsus doesn’t mention anyone actually dying from the disease, so I’m curious where that number comes from. Let’s say Strasbourg’s population was about 20,000 (Wikipedia says its population in 1444 was about 20,000), that means about 1 percent of the population was dying every two weeks from dancing. That seems kind of high, but hey, if you gotta dance you gotta dance.
Waller’s most likely explanation for the manic dancing is that the areas where it hit were already suffering widespread psychological stress. Many of the locations that experienced such a disease had recently experienced poor harvests, floods, syphilis, or other desperate conditions. If these areas had a pre-existing supernatural belief in a “dancing curse,” then this state of despair could have led to a cultural contagion, represented in the form of frantic dancing.
Other potential causes for the dancing mania have been proffered, though, including:
“Hot blood,” or other foul humours. During the dancing, some physicians testified to the Strasbourg city council that it was “a natural sickness that came from hot blood.”
Ergot. Ergot is a hallucinogenic mold that can grow on rye. It can cause spasms, tremors, and hallucinations. Ergotism outbreaks did occur in medieval Europe due to people consuming contaminated flour, but the symptoms don’t exactly align with the high energy, high endurance dancing seen here.
God. Always looking to punish people for dancing too much and/or not enough.
The Devil. Ditto.
Chorea. An involuntary movement disorder.
Tarantism. Caused by wolf spider bites. Tarantism was more specific to southern Italy, where it was believed that either the bite of a wolf spider caused frantic dancing, or that frantic dancing was the only cure for a wolf spider bite (or maybe both?). This somehow evolved into the dance known as the tarantella, which still exists today.
Some combination of all the above. Hallucinogenics + Wolf Spiders + Mass Hysteria + God is always a fun combo.
Of all the possibilities, both Waller’s and Paracelsus’s theories that the dancing mania was a form of mass hysteria make the most sense to me. I’m also skeptical as to whether anyone died from it, and am very skeptical of the 15 people per day number.
But I think the most important lesson to draw from all this is: never let your grumpy spouse stop you from dancing maniacally in the streets for months on end.
John Waller, A forgotten plague: making sense of dancing mania, from The Lancet
Ned Pennant-Rea, The Dancing Plague of 1518, from the Public Domain Review
Hint: Reddit is not to be trusted
Paracelsus, Opus Paramirum. English translation available online here
Quoted in Midelfort